Has Iran halted its nuclear weapons program?

Your war questions answered

Uh, no.

On Nov. 14, Iran promised it would temporarily halt the nuclear weapons program that it denies having. The Iranians didn't promise it in those terms, though. They simply promised to temporarily halt their uranium enrichment and related activities. Related activities includes stuff like building high-speed enrichment centrifuges, importing centrifuge parts, throwing secret uranium-enrichment parties, and manufacturing and distributing "I Heart Uranium Enrichment" T-shirts.

The agreement, which is only temporary, was brokered by the U.K., France and Germany, the so-called EU-3. The EU-3 is trying to head off the confrontation in the U.N. Security Council that the U.S. has been pushing for by promising Iran economic and technical help in exchange for its cooperation. A nuclear-themed showdown between Iran and the Western world has been brewing since 2002. That's when exiled opponents of the Iranian government tattled on Iran for hiding two nuclear facilities from the International Atomic Energy Agency in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that Iran had signed. The hidden facilities are a uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy-water manufacturing plant in Arak. Heavy water is like regular water only, um, heavier, thanks to an extra neutron on the hydrogen atom. Heavy water is an international no-no because it's used in nuclear reactors.

By the way, don't try to drink heavy water. Even though it's really expensive and really expensive stuff is usually totally cool, heavy water can kill you, no matter how many times you run it through your Brita pitcher.

The Bush administration is skeptical about the agreement, and rightfully so. Iran has already violated several previous nuke-stopping agreements, including one brokered in late 2003. At the moment, though, the White House doesn't have much else to offer other than skepticism. Even if we got our way and the IAEA officially reported Iran's violations to the U.N. Security Council, it's unlikely that much would come of it. Two of the council's permanent members, Russia and China, have lucrative financial dealings with Iran that they don't want to scupper with sanctions. Russia is building nuclear power plants in Iran, and China has just agreed to $100 billion in development deals with Iran. China is going to help Iran pump oil and natural gas that it will then sell to China. Iranians plan to then take that revenue and, like the rest of the world, turn around and buy tons of cheap plastic Chinese crap.

At the core of this dispute are two simple facts. First, we can't stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power if it wants to. The country's nuclear program is so spread out and well concealed that we can't destroy it with air strikes. Even if we could slow it down with air strikes, they would likely result in greater Iranian efforts to destabilize Iraq and Israel. Iran has a lot of sway with Iraqi Shi'ites, as well as Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Yeah, it's theoretically possible to launch a full-scale invasion to topple Iran's evil Mullahcracy, but we have neither the troop strength nor the stomach for it.

Second, Iran's Mullahcrats are correct in their assessment that nuclear weapons are effective insurance against a U.S.-led regime-change operation or air strikes by the U.S. or Israel. One of the indisputable facts of Dubya's first term is that we have two foreign policies — a bullying one for non-nuclear enemies like Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, and a completely wussified one for nuclear powers like Pakistan and North Korea. Iran's leaders know that when they have nukes in hand, the U.S. will all of a sudden be much nicer.

The only way we're going to convince Iran to stop pursuing a nuclear program is if we and the Europeans promise Iran security, normal relations, and economic aid in exchange for unimpeded international inspections of every Iranian military facility. That's unlikely to happen for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the other indisputable fact about Dubya's first term is that he and his cronies really suck at the sort of diplomacy necessary to pull off that type of agreement.